Pitchside

Why Gerrard’s still key to Liverpool’s success

Pitchside

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After 14 years and 114 caps, England captain Steven Gerrard has announced his international retirement at the age of 34. His time as an England player ended in disappointment, as they crashed out during the group stages in this summer's World Cup, but he has been one of their better performers throughout his international career.

David Beckham is the only outfield player to have worn the Three Lions on his chest on more occasions than Gerrard (115), and Liverpool will be thankful their captain is not looking to overtake him.

Brendan Rodgers' side were excellent last season and outperformed virtually all expectations to finish second, just two points behind Manchester City. One of the main factors in their success was Steven Gerrard's new deep-lying role.

His unswerving commitment, crunching tackles, and fearsome long shot made him arguably been the best box-to-box midfielder in the world during his younger years, but he can no longer make those lung-bursting runs over 90 minutes.

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Gerrard heat map v Arsenal last season

He is not able to single-handedly drag Liverpool to victory these days, and he now leads the team in a more controlled fashion. Rodgers' has redeployed Gerrard as a holding player, with Jordan Henderson usually providing the energy alongside him. In some games Liverpool also set up in a diamond formation, with Henderson and Philippe Coutinho either side of Gerrard, and Raheem Sterling at the tip.

Gerrard still has an outstanding range of passing, and Rodgers' system allows him to control games from deep. You would often see him drop back alongside the centre-backs last season, picking up the ball near his own penalty area to allow the full-backs to bomb forward.

He can occasionally attempt too many "Hollywood passes", though he would argue that his return of 13 assists - the best in the league - justifies them. Only Yaya Toure played more passes in total than Gerrard last year, and he's generally very smart with his use of the ball, spreading play to stretch opposition defences and create space for the likes of Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.

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Gerrard passes v Manchester City last season

Liverpool have a huge task on their hands just to match last season's second-place finish, let alone improve on it. Their title rivals are busy improving their squads, and while Liverpool have already spent heavily, they have also lost their top goalscorer Luis Suarez to Barcelona. The Reds will also have to cope with the additional demands of Champions League football next year.

With those additional European fixtures, the constant cycle of games can be wearing for even the fittest players, and Rodgers will be relieved Gerrard has stood down from England duty.

There have already been reports that Rodgers will be more sparing with his use of Gerrard next season, and international breaks will now provide the captain with some valuable time to rest. Instead of trekking all over Europe for the Euro 2016 qualifiers and meaningless international friendlies, he can ensure he is fully prepared for Liverpool.

Despite Gerrard's age, he can still influence the big matches. Just look at Andrea Pirlo - and this isn't to say that Gerrard will replicate the Italian maestro - but the 35-year-old has played a key role in Juventus' three consecutive Serie A titles, and he was imperious in Italy's 2-1 victory over England in the World Cup.

The game is faster than ever, but Pirlo proves that those the wrong side of 30 can still dictate play from midfield. Gerrard still has the ability to spray passes all over the pitch, and he has demonstrated his intelligence in his new position. Many thought he didn't have the discipline to carry out such a role, and Rafa Benitez even went as far as playing him on the right-wing at one point so his runs wouldn't disrupt the team's shape, but Gerrard has proved them wrong.

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Gerrard tackles v Arsenal last season

The issue for England was that his lack of mobility wasn't adequately covered, and teams were able to bypass a two-man midfield relatively easily. Rodgers' tactics compensate for that, and other than one humbling encounter with Aston Villa, Gerrard was rarely as exposed at club level as he was in Brazil. Liverpool look to win the ball back quickly high up the pitch, which allows the captain to ensure he is in the correct position.

He has always been a ferocious tackler, and he was impressive as a defensive shield last season. Only four midfielders made more defensive actions (interceptions, blocks, clearances) in total, though Mark Noble was the only player to make more defensive errors last season, with six to Gerrard's five. One of those errors, the slip against Chelsea to let Demba Ba score, was arguably the moment Liverpool lost the league.

With a year in the role under his belt, Gerrard will understand its nuances better next season, and Liverpool are also looking to improve their defence in the transfer market, which will also help.

Gerrard might not be the player he once was, but he has been intelligent enough to adapt his game as he has grown older, and he will play a major role in whatever success Liverpool achieve next season.

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